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The Boston Phoenix Organ Donors

Carter, Scofield, and Previte.

By Ed Hazell

JUNE 8, 1998:  Organ combos suffer from the worst case of stunted growth in jazz. Since the late '50s, when Jimmy Smith established the Hammond B-3 as a jazz instrument, little has changed in the subgenre's basic blues-ballads-and-bebop format, with the exception of Larry Young's forays into modal and free jazz in the '60s. Always popular with audiences -- it's great party music, after all -- organ jazz has nonetheless undergone a critical re-evaluation in recent years, and a new generation of musicians is finally updating the formulas. Three very different new releases by three very different artists have recently arrived to show just how far beyond chicken-shack jazz the organ can be taken: saxophonist James Carter's In Carterian Fashion (Atlantic), guitarist John Scofield's A Go Go (Verve), and drummer Bobby Previte's My Man in Sydney (Enja).

Carter blows apart the organ-combo tradition from within on In Carterian Fashion. Most young players schooled in post-war jazz sound positively timid in the context of his unrestrained enthusiasm and voraciously encyclopedic romps through the canon. On In Carterian Fashion he alludes to great organ-combo saxophonists without ever imitating them, and he pushes the tradition into free jazz and beyond. Coleman Hawkins is present in Carter's surging swing, Arnett Cobb hovers behind his honks and screeches, and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis clearly inspires his slap-tongue riffs. Yet Carter never settles for mere pastiche. He'll exaggerate a mannerism until it's something new, or rip it out of the swing-to-bop context and place it in a free jazz where it takes on a different meaning. There's an ongoing tension between old and new in his playing, and the trajectory of his solos is impossible to predict. Backed by regulars keyboardist Craig Taborn, bassist Jaribu Shahid, drummer Tani Tabal, and assorted special guests, including soul-jazz keyboardist Henry Butler and Cyrus Chestnut in his recorded debut on organ, Carter segues from wild collective improvisation into funky grooves on the title track and plunges into gymnastic free bop on "Escape from Bizarro World."

There are funky grooves a-plenty on Scofield's meeting with Medeski Martin and Wood on A Go Go (Verve). Booker T. and the MG's meet Sun Ra at Sly Stone's house in this album's trippy blend of New Orleans funk, hip-hop, and James Brown rhythms with Scofield's witty jazz improvisations. Billy Martin's rock-solid beat and Chris Wood's deep-down vamps keep the music rocking and dancing; John Medeski's sheath of warm chords lifts it to ecstatic, tranced-out highs. The album's primary flaw is that the tempos are pretty much the same: there's a growing sense of complacency in Medeski Martin and Wood's playing, and even Scofield can't prevent a certain monotony from setting in. Still, his unpredictable swings from ethereal, blissed-out wailing to nasty blues licks do provide dramatic action on tunes like "Chank" and "Southern Pacific," which keeps the rhythm section from getting too comfortable. And he breaks everybody out of that mellow groove for a good sweat on "Boozer" and "Hottentot."

No lack of perspiration on Previte's My Man in Sydney, which was recorded live with his latest group, Latin for Travelers, at the Basement in Sydney, Australia. With drummer Previte at the helm and Jamie Saft on organ, Jerome Harris on electric bass and guitar, and Marc Ducret on guitar, Latin for Travelers sometimes recalls Tony Williams's early fusion band Lifetime. But Previte's ensemble is more fluid and boasts a greater range of styles. Previte usually writes complex charts full of postmodern juxtapositions and unorthodox orchestrations; for his "sort of bar band," however, he sticks to simple riffs and cuts loose to jam. It's a strategy that pays off in some exceptionally exciting, free-flowing jazz-funk on the title track and "London Duty Free," where the one-two punch of Saft's comping and Previte's drumming spurs Ducret and Harris to some furiously paced solos that shatter into harsh metallic noise. Previte is musical throughout, goading the band with an invigorating beat and a supportive patter that covers the whole drum kit. Some of the tracks seem a little long, but, live, this must have been one helluva show. n

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